Sir Moir Lockhead looks to Irish model as the way ahead for Scotland
SIR Moir Lockhead has kept a low profile since taking over as chairman of the SRU almost a year ago, but after watching two Irish teams contest a Heineken Cup Final for the first time he is beginning to believe that Scottish rugby has a plan to emerge from the Celtic shadows.
A month away from the launch of a new five-year strategy at his first Murrayfield AGM at the helm, Lockhead insists that the route to success lies in adopting the Irish model with a few little Scots tweaks.
The strategy will show fresh, ambitious and detailed targets across the game, from driving up numbers of players of all ages to increasing the amount of rugby coaching available in schools, from ‘professionalising’ local club rugby to increasing the crowd figures and sponsorship income at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and to raising the bar for Andy Robinson and the Scotland squad. All very agreeable, but the question is ‘how?’
After a weekend in which Leinster claimed a third Heineken Cup success in four years, the former transport chief executive began by outlining how he has put the wheels in motion on a model designed to set Scottish rugby on the path that has brought success to the Emerald Isle. “The Irish model is what we’re trying to replicate now,” he said, “with the pro clubs part of the union, linked to the union’s and the national team’s success, but developing their own identity and their own entrepreneurial spirit in the way that Leinster, Munster and Ulster in particular have. We are seeing that now with people at these clubs coming up with the ideas to drive them forward and that is the key.”
As board chairman, Lockhead is happier to see chief executive Mark Dodson as the new ‘face’ of the SRU, but he himself was head-hunted to bring a strong business mind and customer focus to Scottish rugby. He has a passion for the game but a zeal for sharp business sense and admits that what has pleased him most about his first year at Murrayfield’s coal-face has been the switch from accounts-driven balancing of books to a more rugby-focused business.
“When we spoke last year I said that we would set out to make a number of ‘quick-fixes’,” he began, “and one of the first things that you asked was why we couldn’t open up ticket sales on match-days. We did it against the Irish in the pre-World Cup match, and we got 2,500 extra people. And that is the different philosophy we wanted to bring in. It was just madness having an empty seat and not selling it, and we said ‘look, it doesn’t make any sense’.
“That was a simple, easy fix, but it began to regain some of the goodwill of our supporters. The car park behind Murrayfield was another classic. The attitude seemed to be that re-opening that was just too difficult, but we released 700 spaces at £25 a space it was a sell-out both for the England and France games, and the idea that you might lose some sort of selling opportunities inside Murrayfield was a myth.
“When we sold tickets on the gate there were two or three hundred people arrived at the last minute, so now we’ve created a system where you can print off your tickets at home, as with airlines, and turn up without having to queue to get your ticket and then queue to get in.
“All that nonsense about supporters not being able to use the President’s Suite at Murrayfield was another thing. It’s there and it’s for the supporters’ benefit, not for us [SRU] to protect. Ultimately, supporters have paid for it so it has to be for their benefit.
“These ‘little things’ all play a part in Edinburgh attracting nearly 38,000 people for the Heineken Cup quarter-final. There is a latent demand for good performance and feeling welcome, and what we have to do now is continue to perform at high levels on and off the pitch.”
And that is a challenge. A one-off quarter-final with the four-times Heineken Cup winners is one thing, but in 15 years Scottish rugby has never come close to attracting crowds in double figures, never mind 38,000, regularly, which is why it lacks the money that has been generated to fill out the ‘Irish model’, one established on the back of a roaring Tiger economy.
Lockhead believes the best move he has made at Murrayfield has been hiring Dodson, a former Guardian Group MD and Manchester club rugby player, as the new SRU chief executive. He insists that the best is yet to come from Dodson, a good blend of business acumen and rugby understanding, and pays tribute to his drive to encourage Edinburgh and Glasgow staff to create their own identities, take ownership of their clubs and be entrepreneurial. But, clearly, it remains less independence, more devolution. Many felt the SRU got it wrong when deciding to replace Glasgow head coach Sean Lineen with Gregor Townsend, and move Lineen into a new role scouting talent worldwide and coaching the under-20s. There was no devolved decision-making at work there.
Lockhead insists: “The appointment of Sean to the first post the SRU has had of scouting worldwide for people who can bring quality to the Scottish game I think is great. I believe that it’s the right thing to do and, now, out of the heat of the moment Sean says ‘what a great opportunity this is’, to help the Warriors, Edinburgh and the international teams to be more successful, and he can put his name to that. Gregor has the opportunity to pick up where Sean left off, and having seen the team perform at a much more consistent level this season than before he has to keep that momentum going, and we think that he will.”
He stresses the new role for Lineen as something at the heart of his and Dodson’s desire to improve the quality of Scottish rugby, and build on this season’s performances by Edinburgh and Glasgow. The chairman speaks of excitement about Glasgow rugby developing around its new Scotstoun home, and the search for a smaller stadium for Edinburgh goes on, with talks with the City of Edinburgh Council over a proposed new Sainsbury’s store at Meadowbank still far from anything concrete.
Coming back to the new strategy, to be announced by Dodson at the AGM at the end of June, there are whispers of it including head-spinning, ambitious targets. Lockhead says that much of it came from the club roadshows he attended around the country with Dodson in his first six months, while other aims are designed to push people out of comfort zones. However, like his predecessor, he will ultimately be judged on the success of the rugby teams during his tenure. And much of that in sport now, like it or not, stems from money. “Funding is a challenge and will continue to be,” he agrees, “which is why we have to be clever with the business model we use.
“We’ve looked at what has happened in France and England, and looked at Ireland. The Irish have managed to achieve funding and performance with the pro teams and national team, so we know that that model can work.
“We have to find a way of achieving in the way they have and finding the money remains a challenge in this economy, for everyone. Rugby is no different to other sporting groups.
“There isn’t an entrepreneur jumping out of the woodwork to fund another pro team, and as we have seen in other sport in Scotland it’s not easy to find people, just now, who are willing to invest a pack of money in sport.
“Now, I’m not saying we won’t go down that route. We may. We’ve only been here a year and the transition is still ongoing and as people see that Murrayfield has changed, that people have changed and they can come and talk to Mark and meet the team here, and discuss a business opportunity they want from this, then I think there will be scope for that. But so far no-one has come out of the woodwork.
“Is there a magic solution?” he added. “I don’t think there is. But Scottish rugby does attract funding and where we’ve got to so far is through using what we’ve got to raise the quality of play at our two pro teams, contracting the talent we’ve got more quickly and bringing in talent in areas where we need it, and improving the customer experience at pro and international levels.
“We have spent more money this year and will spend more next year, because the crowds are growing and if we got 10,000 people watching Edinburgh and Glasgow most weeks that would make a hell of a difference to what we could do at all levels in Scottish rugby.
“But there are a number of areas that are a ‘work in progress’. I have been disappointed with the national team performance, as we all have, because we’re capable of doing better. We think that the ingredients are right and it’s just a case of now of being able to win, at XVs and sevens.”
The ‘what’ is rarely in doubt. The ‘how’ is always the big question. Lockhead concluded: “The key for me is continuing progress and making sure that what we achieve is sustainable; we know how and why we’re doing what we’re doing and we build on success and correct areas that are not successful.
“We have started on that road and the new strategy will set out absolutely clearly what our plans for the next five years look like. It is very challenging but I believe it is do-able.”
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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